There lies Lagos, the city at the edge of the sea and always on edge. And the people are sometimes at sea. There I was almost born but grew up there. I saw it in the 1960’s, when I first understood the identity of things on Ijaoye Street, near Yaba.
But it was a city where I first found my tongue and feet. Where I kicked my first ball, wrote my first sentence, ran to safety with my father Moses during the civil war, made my first friend, loosed my tongue into its first song, crippled a toe in my first wound, knew the limpid sky above and learned about God and the devil, duelled a classmate, conquered a class test, inhaled the chemical anxiety of a hospital air where I went with my mother over a non-existent ailment.
It was that very afternoon when the doctor said I was fine and that my frequent bouts of malaria were not because of any blood disease. I recall that afternoon my first encounter with amala, and my taste bud cringed gratefully to the meal with ewedu. Because I loved it, it became a home staple.
Since then Lagos has been for me what it has been for Nigeria. It has known war and peace, the ragged and the brilliant, the elegant and brutal, the lover and predator, the quick and the dead, the tyrant and olive branch.
Baba Sala made me thrill to the laugh as organised entertainment. The Bar Beach Show was a joy in literal language but barbaric in metaphor. It entertained until we saw armed robbers’ heads drop on stakes from gunshots.
Lagos has been the cult of success. Everyone knew he or she would visit Lagos. In spirit. In their fantasies, they were singers, football stars, CEOs, heads of state. They gobbled the city’s delicacies and swaddled the tony arms of the rich.
They came with their all, hoping to love and grow, make money and subdue it, own a big home, coddle a wife or man, breed a family, travel on its fabled highways and watch its televisions, encounter its celebrities from Julie Coker to D’Banj, from Ray Ekpu to Segun Odegbami, from Victor Uwaifo to Haruna Ilerika. Achebe wrote on how unwilling he was to depart the place when the Igbo fled the pogrom. Soyinka dedicated works to it. Ekwensi’s Jaguar Nana and other works roiled there. Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade found muse there. And Nigeria’s best ever, Rex Lawson, warmed his tongue in its entrails. Asa soared there first.
It is the melting pot. The tribes come, whether Afemai or Ogoni, whether from a backwoods hut in Abia or an illiterate mother near Sambisa, Lagos has not only been a destination. It has been a destiny. The poor came to Lagos and rose to become a rose. The same city that birthed Olajumoke into a star also embraced a skinny lad like Nwankwo Kanu whose feet wrote Nigerian soccer into lore. Scientists like Awojobi and Chike Obi, social scientists like Claude Ake, or lawyers like Gani Fawehinmi and Falana. They all boomed there. Dele Giwa was letter-bombed into martyrdom. Even breakaway Ojukwu daydreamed about it in Biafra.
The man born in Damaturu found traction in Isale Eko. The trader who could not bloom in Benin had a boost of clients in Alausa. At one time, Lagos swarmed with soldiers. As the nation’s capital, the youth did not want to be democrats. They loved the ostentatious impunity of the khaki men. Murtala Mohammed’s voice and its ability to conjure action did not vitiate the army’s glory in the senses after Dimka snuffed it out. It was almost like the Stockholm syndrome, the victim bonded with its kidnapper.
Fela’s “Soldier go, soldier come,” became less of a republican query than a sonorous surrender in an age when to be a messiah was to be a bully. Even avatars like Soyinka and Solarin were almost beguiled when the gap-toothed one gave us a meretricious cake of a system. Boys fantasised about “good morning, fellow Nigerians…”
Lagos saw it and ran weary. The jackboot ran its course. In the city, Zik, Awo, et al, duelled to free us from the white man’s fang. In the 1990’s, the big city was agog with fury again. “On June 12 we stand,” a slogan reigned about Abiola. The man started as a dirt-poor kid who sang for bowls of amala. He became the nation’s richest man and unparalleled philanthropist. Once on the side of the soldier, he waxed into a traitor to his past, morphing into the neon sign of democracy. His foes fell and rallied behind him. His fellow oppressors were aghast at his new incarnation.
We all became democrats, including even peacock soldiers. They joined in the cauldron, including businessmen. In Lagos people dared and risked their lives. Rewane, Bagauda Kaltho, Kudirat Abiola, etc bubbled out of sight. Some almost died; Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Soyinka, Bayo Onanuga, Nosa Igiebor, etc had limbs and zeal to fight on.
In the end, Lagos survived for Nigeria. The city after Abacha was an opportunity. Democracy was nothing if not how Lagos did it. Without oil, Lagos became the country’s richest state. Lucky always, it had good men at the helm. First, it was Jakande, an austere leader, who combined discipline with a frontiers man’s vision, dreaming free education, and infrastructure work. No colour, no finesse, but a lot to deliver to the people.
Tinubu came after Marwa. He laid a foundation for what is modern Lagos. Not the Jakande austere worldview, he came with a fecund vision, blending grassroots flair with fertility of commerce. A soldier and refiner of democracy. Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) took over and built assiduously on the vision and earned on this page the epaulette of the governor of example.
The Jonathan years impacted Lagos. Nowhere was it more potent than the election that brought alpha Governor Akinwunmi Ambode to the throne. At the polls, ethnic hate halved the city as no time in the past 50 years. The vote tilted for peace. With a “one Lagos” vision of ground-breaking infrastructure work, Ambode has soothed wounds and subdued tribe or faith, emphasising one people, and levitated the city to its cultural vitality.
Our embraces are more important than our races. Our kind places second when we are kind. As Lagos marks 50, it looks with faith to another 50 without fifth columnists, but a single march of one people. Poet Lord Alfred Tennyson calls it, “one equal temper of heroic hearts.”